Is TV going green?
Jay Michael Levin, founder of cable start-up network Planet Central, is in Santa Monica sitting at his burgundy leather desk, lent by a friend after one of L.A.'s fires destroyed his Malibu offices. Nature is on Levin's mind, although not Mother Nature. Human nature would be more like it--the human instinct, as Levin sees it, that inexorably connects mind and body to commerce and will make his ecology-oriented cable network a success.
Planet Central is just one of three would-be 24-hour cable channels that hope to get off the ground early this year. The Baltimore-based Ecology Channel has staked out a position to the right of Planet Central's green activism. And Earth Television Network (ETN) of Queens, New York, which calls itself "an idea whose time has come," plans to launch with just satellite dish owners tuning in. All of the networks face formidable hurdles, with new FCC regulations making it even harder to add a new programming service to the lineup.
The environmentally conscious community, according to Simmons 1993 market research, includes 53 percent of American adults. A study conducted by the Roper Organization in New York and published in American Demographics in 1994 shows that 20 percent of the U.S. population are either active environmentalists or active green consumers. Another 35 percent, the survey said, would change their purchasing decisions based on environmental claims. The greening of cable, Levin believes, is inevitable. "You'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to realize the enormous number of people who are engaged in some form of support for the environment, some form of self-help, some form of human development, some form of social activism."
The Ecology Channel, which first appeared with limited programming in December, was started by Eric McLamb, now its president, whose public relations posts include five years with Discovery and five with TBS. At those networks, McLamb worked on programming with the Cousteau Society, the National Audubon Society and National Geographic. "Our focus," McLamb says, "is on lifestyles: How people relate to environment, how to get the greatest enjoyment out of life. Ours is a feel-good show. The Ecology Channel is a messenger of information, there to provide information that condones an enjoyable, even a very profitable, environmentally friendly lifestyle."
Chaz Scardino of Earth Television Network, meanwhile, says he can get along without cable. "There are eight million satellite dishes in use in North America now," he says. "So we're talking about 400,000 viewers for our satellite-based programming. The numbers are there."
Scardino wants advertising, too, and he cites the national network of health food stores and holistic healers. "We'll get the ads we need," he says with considerable confidence. Scardino, too, wants to have programming--three hours of it at first--on the "air" by early this year. "We'll start with three hours and if it goes great, we'll go to six hours right away." Scardino also wants to hook into the new Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) technology, which will connect multi-channel TV to people with only a small desktop antenna, but the medium is still unproved.
Scardino describes his programming as a mix of "motherhood programs, environmental telezines, health and environment-friendly product information and news shows."
Looming as a corporate-sponsored competitor to the three overtly environmental networks is Times Mirror's Outdoor Life Channel, based on the "hook and bullet" magazine of the same name. While Outdoor Life wants to preserve the environment mainly to shoot animals and snare fish, multi-billion-dollar Times Mirror--which also owns Field and Stream, Ski and Yachting magazines--is betting that it can attract real environmentalists to at least watch the shows that don't involve anything getting killed.
"Everybody talks about synergy," says Times Mirror's Ann Dilworth, vice president of international and new media. "It looks good on paper, but it never works. Here it is working. Because of the strength of our magazine, we've got 24 million readers whom we are bringing to this channel. We have strength in advertising and among cable operators, and we've got 1.3 million customers on our own cable system." Cable insiders note that Times Mirror's cable division is in sales talks with other large system operators, and the current plan is that the company acquiring the 1.3 million Times Mirror subscribers will be bound contractually to carry Outdoor Life, ensuring a launch of between three to four million subscribers.
When it goes on the air this year, Times Mirror anticipates 24-hour programming about outdoor activities, from rock climbing to snowshoeing, with a how-to emphasis, and occasional "conversation" documentaries thrown in the mix. McLamb's Ecology Channel will offer an array of children's programs, science fiction, news and "environmentally friendly" infomercials, anchored by six hours a day of "The Home Gardening Club"--practical tips for urban, suburban and rural gardeners with direct ordering services for tools and supplies. Planet Central, meanwhile, wants to provide a nightly newscast, investigative magazines and original entertainment, inspired by grassroots environmental activism and street-smart filmmakers.
Times Mirror has been parlaying its magazine titles into cable productions for the last two years. Times Mirror's Saltwater Sportsman is tied in with ESPN, along with Field and Stream and Outdoor Life vignettes; "Ocean Planet" is a programming partnership with The Discovery Channel. Moreover, programs are in development with the Nashville Network, the Sci Fi Channel and CNBC, according to Jay Moses, who is in charge of converting Times Mirror's print assets into multimedia. "We've learned that our magazine editors carry tremendous weight by appearing on the air, hosting vignettes," says Ann Dilworth.
According to the National Sporting Goods Association, outdoor enthusiasts spend more than $44 billion annually on related products, and advertisers spend $766 million on outdoor magazines. "I think that Outdoor Life probably is a clean rifle shot, if you don't mind the analogy," says Tony Wainwright, chairman of advertising agency Campbell-Mithun Esty, whose clients include General Mills, Kimberly-Clark, Travelers Insurance and Texaco.
For Levin, McLamb and Scardino, who are wooing a more eco-conscious audience, uncertainty lies ahead. As yet, none have announced that they've landed full-time channel space with any major cable operator, but McLamb tied his December 6 launch to the network's debut--two hours a week--on Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI) cable systems reaching 14 million subscribers. The Ecology Channel is sharing space on a special TCI smorgasbord service designed to showcase new programming entities.
Levin says he will launch in January or February with a similar arrangement involving four-to-eight hours of programming per week and 11 million subscribers. "We're reasonably locked into TCI," Levin says, predicting that his service will be fully operational sometime in 1996. Like most operators of new programming services, Levin is somewhat hampered by the slow construction of the new 500-channel "information super highway," or what he calls "the big head end in the sky." An FCC ruling in November does make the multi-channel outlook appear brighter.
Despite the lack of any definite commitments, the networks say they'll be able to launch small and grow rapidly. "Right now, on day one, we anticipate launching with 350,000 subscribers," McLamb claims. "Not homes passed, but people actually receiving the Ecology Channel. We expect to grow by 250,000 new subscribers a quarter." McLamb, whose network will be available to cable operators free during its first year, hopes to have 10.5 million subscribers after five years. He cites a survey done by Research Communications for Home & Garden that shows interest in The Ecology Channel among home-owning cable subscribers topped only by interest in The History Channel.
Levin claims he can succeed with as few as 250,000 subscribers, a possibility that many cable insiders find hard to believe. "The most important thing to remember," he says, "is that some very successful cable networks, like E! and CNBC, are making it with completely puny numbers." While that is true, E! is largely owned by Time Warner, and CNBC is owned by General Electric. CNBC, for one, has cost GE hundreds of millions of dollars, expenditures far beyond an entrepreneur's grasp.
Still, Levin's view that niche networks can survive, even prosper, with audiences that don't even begin to register in the Nielsen ratings, is shared by some industry analysts.
"The first thing they have to do is establish themselves with the cable operators," says the well-respected Betsy Frank, executive vice president and director of strategic media resources at Saatchi and Saatchi advertising agency. "Once they reach a critical mass in number of subscribers, they will attract advertisers, because they're a small and well-defined niche. Their main problem is that they don't have big business partners, like the Time-Warners and the TCIs."
Bill Marchetti of Paul Kagan Associates agrees. He believes the eco-channels have a chance over the next three to five years. "The environment is a big enough interest that it could work to form a core group of homes." Marchetti sees the channels as "mini pays" charging only $2 to $3 a month. With enough subscribers, he says, "they could survive almost without commercials." But, Marchetti adds, two such similar services probably can't co-exist and might ultimately have to merge. He cites the merger of the Comedy Channel and Ha! to form Comedy Central.
Just such merger talks have occurred between McLamb and Levin, though neither appears very enthusiastic about them. Of the two, McLamb is more generous about the ongoing discussions. "Planet Central is having talks with our CEO," he says. "We have an open mind about it; there's certainly common ground. You never say never, and we certainly don't want a raging war going." [At presstime, McLamb told E that the merger talks were heating up, and that he was close to a deal involving both financing and channel space for The Ecology Channel. He also signed on the respected, Denver-based cable industry firm Daniels and Associates as The Ecology Channel's investment bankers.]
Cable operators remain somewhat pessimistic about eco-TV. "I would ask Eric McLamb and Jay Levin to show me where people have spent their own money on the environment--not through government and taxes, but where they have enthusiastically used their own money on ecology," says Ted Livingston, senior vice president of marketing at Continental Cablevision. "The programming would have to be so compelling that if I as a viewer have a choice of 10 channels, and I'm going to pick five, let's say, the ecology programming would be one of those five. It seems to me that the eco-channels are more akin to PBS, where everyone says that they believe, but not nearly enough people watch."
McLamb and Levin, however, remain confident. The Ecology Channel will thrive, McLamb asserts, by keeping subscription prices low, by working with cable operators to develop local corporate sponsorship to underwrite environmental messages and by creating strong identification with the channel through an "ecology reinvestment program." Part of the subscription fee would be returned to local environmental organizations, for which the cable operator would take credit. "It's not the Ecology Channel bringing you the ecology reinvestment, it's Comcast of Howard County, Texas. It's Continental Cable of Beverly Hills. The community gets a little money coming directly back to them. The operator becomes a local hero -- and makes a little money," McLamb concludes.
A subscription to The Ecology Channel will also include, among other things, an online service and home eco-shopping, with everything from hair care to gardening supplies, and a combination magazine/channel guide. McLamb avers that these diverse business streams will put the channel in the black.
McLamb will not discuss how much he has raised of the $32 million he says is necessary to carry out his ambitious plan. He has, however, signed one national advertiser and, according to Knipe, serious negotiations are underway with another.
Planet Central's approach includes many of the same elements: strong community and product identification, and a revenue stream impelled by "infomercials." Levin believes there is a pot of gold at the end of the environmental rainbow: He has identified 15,000 companies nationwide that do not advertise on television. Some 2,500 of those will be targeted as potential sponsors. Why would they jump aboard an unrated network, that in any given market might have 1,000 viewers?
"We will be creating marketing partnerships," Levin responds. "We will show them how to market this in the media. We will produce their infomercials. We will provide the first round of financing and share the cash flow. There is tremendous, fresh, new revenue-sharing potential out there. These infomercials are really inexpensive, around $10,000 to produce a two-minute spot. We are going after a trillion dollars worth of business that is not in television right now."
Where the money will come from for such a far-reaching enterprise is a mystery. To date, Planet Central has raised $1.5 million. When asked, "Is $1.5 million enough?" Levin replies, "We're here," gesturing with the sweep of his hand to his spacious third-story office overlooking Santa Monica's chic Third-Street Promenade.
Levin, well-known for a kind of visionary salesmanship, is undeterred by naysayers. In 1978, he founded the alternative newspaper L.A. Weekly, going deeply into debt. But, he came out on top, despite intense competition from the capital-rich Chicago Reader, which invested several million dollars in its spin off, L.A. Reader.
Programming will be the key to Planet Central. "Snorkeling masks are banned from this office," jokes Jane Deknatel, the tall Brit who is a veteran of HBO's film division and now Planet Central's programming chief. "There will be no underwater shows on Planet Central," she says. "I have a philosophical take on programming. We live in a world where we are constantly told by the networks that this is the real world. But the world we live in, in fact, is completely different."
Levin jumps in: "Here we are in the late 20th century, and we know an enormous amount about human processes, the dynamics of human character. There are extensive techniques for growing the human being, for stretching the human being, so that they move out of the bullshit ways that make people unhappy and unproductive. We will be producing television shows that are as dramatic as the afternoon shows like Oprah, but will lead people to feel stretched, stimulated--rather that offer perverse voyeurism. Our viewers will get clarity as opposed to victim name-calling shows."
Such fervor doesn't go down well at The Ecology Channel. "Impartial, unbiased, multi-perspective," is how McLamb describes his programming. "The environment means different things to different people, and our viewers can go to the topics that interest them the most."
Adds Timothy Knipe, The Ecology Channel's vice president of environmental operations, "We see The Ecology Channel more as a forum for discussion, a coalition of solution speakers, not just enviros and conservationists, but corporate people, homemakers, and anyone else who is concerned. We don't want to alienate anybody. We want to be an objective source on the issues."
McLamb and Knipe believe that, like the L.A. Weekly Levin edited throughout the 80s, Planet Central will be overtly political, thus a turn off to viewers. "I spent most of my time producing with the Cousteau Society, bringing environmental causes to the public," Knipe says. "It wasn't by preaching. It wasn't by activists ramming ships. But Cousteau widened the awareness of those problems in a personal way. The Ecology Channel will continue that philosophy of personalizing the relationship between human beings and the world they live in."
Levin does not deny that his mission is to wake people up. "All you need is a video camera to make a difference," is one of his slogans, and he believes that by culling tapes from eco-activists around the globe, he'll provide electrifying, fresh television.
Advertisers on Planet Central will have to prove that they are not "green-washing," the practice of using the environment as a cover for ongoing polluting. "For us the major thing will be that a product really has to be environmentally sound," Levin explains. "A product cannot be adding to the burden of an already over-burdened planet. For instance, take the case of milk. There are an enormous number of health people who say 'keep away from dairy,' and we think our audience knows that this generic thing, 'Milk--It Does a Body Good,' generally isn't so. We want truth in advertising. What part of milk is good for you? Milk will have to make a case for itself as beneficial."
By contrast, The Ecology Channel is directly soliciting corporate sponsorship. "If getting involved in a company means sending the wrong environmental message, that won't be done on The Ecology Channel," declares McLamb. "But who hasn't littered? Who hasn't dumped videotapes or bottles into the garbage? Everyone is guilty." Adds Knipe, "Obviously, if Exxon wants to buy time on our air, we will have a problem. If they want to explain what they are doing differently than before...we won't slam the door."
McLamb's strategy is to approach "the VPs of environmental affairs, whose budgets meet the corporate environmental goals." The idea is to obtain corporate underwriting, allowing companies to hang their corporate identities on an environmental image.
Companies with strong environmental associations, like Ben & Jerry's and Patagonia, aren't yet signing ad contracts for The Ecology Channel or Planet Central; they say they'll wait and see. And you could say the same thing about green TV viewers, who may or may not be out there in sufficient numbers to keep these new networks afloat.
Contacts: The Ecology Channel, 9171 Victoria Drive, Ellicott City, MD 21042/(410)750-7291; Planet Central, 1415 Third Street Promenade, Suite 301, Santa Monica, CA 90401/(310)458-4588; Earth Television Network, 25-35 23rd Street, Astoria, NY 11102/(718)721-9536; Outdoor Life Channel, Times Mirror Magazines, 2 Park Avenue, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10016/(212)779-5576.
PATCHES OF GREEN
Environmental Programs Dot the Landscape of TV's 'Vast Wasteland'
While you're waiting for the 24-hour environmental networks to get off the ground, there's plenty of current programming to keep you informed and entertained.
NBC's new action-adventure series Earth 2 (Sundays, 7-8 p.m. ET) is set in a futureworld where the planet is so environmentally devastated that human populations have been forced into space stations. The show is about a team of scientists trying to construct a livable environment on a distant planet. "We are suggesting--without preaching--that this is mankind's future and that if we're smart, we won't make the same mistakes again," says executive producer Michael Duggan.
ABC is taking the animated route with a Saturday morning (9 a.m. ET) cartoon version of Free Willy, about a boy, Jesse, and his adventures with a three-ton whale. In bit parts are a sea lion named Lucille and a dolphin named Einstein. "It addresses a lot of environmental issues," says Janice Gretemeyer, ABC's vice president of media relations.
Actor Ed Begley, Jr., who lives in a solar-powered house and drives electric cars, also hosts Today's Environment, a half-hour green TV magazine that appears on The Discovery Channel and CNBC. According to Tony Interdonato, director of corporate communications, the Boca Raton, Florida-based program, now in its third season, features "six segments, all showcasing new technology and companies that are helping the environment." Companies featured on the show include Nissan, Mary Kay Cosmetics, BMW, Goodyear and Martin Marietta. It's funded in part by John Paul Jones DeJoria, CEO of environmentally conscious hair products company John Paul Mitchell Systems, who says, "Everything you do now to help save the environment counts." The show is seen on CNBC Saturdays at 12:30 p.m. ET; and on Discovery at 7 a.m. ET Wednesday mornings. Discovery itself runs a whole host of environmental programs, including, on Saturdays alone, In Care of Nature, Wildlife Chronicles and Secrets of the Deep.
Atlanta's Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) has its own vice president of environmental policy, Barbara Pyle (profiled in E in 1990). Partly because of the strong green sympathies of its founder, Ted Turner, the network has produced innumerable environmental specials and series, and has its own Emmy Award-winning Environmental Unit, which produces Network Earth. The weekly magazine show appears on TBS Sunday nights at 11 p.m. ET (8 p.m. PT) and on CNN as Earth Matters Sunday afternoons at 2:30 p.m. (11:30 a.m. PT).
Network Earth takes a personal perspective on major environmental issues, and profiles people and groups that have made a difference. Teya Ryan, executive producer of the CNN Environmental Unit, says "Network Earth's beat is the environment, and we cover it in all aspects--social, scientific, political and personal. We show our viewers how these issues affect their lives." Network Earth has a unique interactive feature for viewers with modem-equipped computers.
TBS' animated Captain Planet and the Planeteers, on the air since 1990 and now in syndication, is about a Billy Jack-style environmental crusader who leads a group of young idealists in a global confrontation with bad-guy polluters. TBS also produces the weekly show National Geographic Explorer.
The Disney Channel is unreeling an environmental science fiction program called Ocean Girl on Monday nights at 7:30 p.m. (ET/PT). The show's central character is a telepathic teen from the sea who's fighting to save her island home on the Great Barrier Reef ("Eden," of course) from developers. Her best friend is a 40-ton humpback whale named Charley. Another new Disney show is Danger Bay (Saturdays, 1 p.m. ET/PT). The show features "Dr. Grant Roberts," who not only conducts important marine mammal and fish research, but also actively fights "toxic waste dumping, poaching and ecological disasters."
The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) remains the home of environmental documentaries and animal shows, including the acclaimed Nature (now in its 13th season, the longest-running weekly natural history show is seen Sundays at 8 p.m. ET), Nova and America's National Parks. PBS' "Operation Earth," launched in 1990, is an ongoing outreach project to educate viewers about the environment. Two as-yet-unscheduled upcoming specials are entitled The Search for Clear Air and Water.
There is plenty of environmental programming on TV now, but you have to be a determined channel surfer to find it.
GREG GOLDIN is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. JIM MOTAVALLI is managing editor of E.
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